Malaysian author Zen Cho is currently making waves, both in the country and overseas, for her unique takes on fantasy and science fiction. Yet little do most people know, the very first work Cho ever crafted was a crime story.
Apparently, the precocious Cho made her fiction debut at the age of six, penning the thrilling tale of a girl whose pet bunny goes missing. She discovers it is the work of a gang of bad guys, who are kidnapping bunnies to make coats from their fur.
“It was kind of a rip-off of 101 Dalmatians!” laughed Cho, speaking during a recent interview by Skype. “I actually don’t remember writing this. But my mum does, and finds it hilarious, because it seems I couldn’t think of an ending.
“See, what happens is, the little girl is hiding and she overhears the bad guy calling his friends. He tells them he is going to make the best coat, and starts laughing, mwahaha, mwahaha, you know like villains do? And he laughs so much he falls over and dies!”
Talk about a twist. Since that story, Cho, now 30, has moved on to more original plots. Her vivid imagination and sense of whimsy, however, have remained intact.
This can be seen in her varied body of work: her first novel, Sorceror To The Crown, was recently picked up by Pan MacMillan and Ace Books (British and American publishers respectively) and was released internationally this year to rave reviews.
Spirits Abroad, her speculative fiction anthology published by local publisher Fixi Novo, was the joint winner of the 2015 William L. Crawford Fantasy Award, together with The Angel Of Losses by Stephanie Feldman. The award is given to debut fantasy books by the International Association For The Fantastic In The Arts.
Not only that, but Cho was also the editor of Fixi Novo’s 2015 anthology Cyberpunk Malaysia, arguably the first ever Malaysian science fiction anthology in English. Not bad for this Selangor-born author, who also works as a corporate lawyer in London, where she now lives with her husband, Peter.
Storytelling seems to run in her family: Cho’s elder brother, Cho We Jun, is a local filmmaker, whose projects include the short films Fix, Salvaj and the upcoming Taiping Adagio.
Have the two ever thought of collaborating on a project, perhaps?
“Not really. I’m not specifically interested in movies, and I don’t think my brother is really interested in the kind of books I write. We have very different interests artistically: He seems to like noir and cop stories, while I like light-hearted fantasy and domestic drama. But you never know,” Cho said.
On the computer screen, the bespectacled Cho comes across as warm and friendly: her hearty laugh comes readily as she shares candidly about her life and loves.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t like mirrors. I read this book about doppelgangers, and I was really freaked out with the idea. So from the ages eight to 13, I didn’t dare look into a mirror, in fear that my reflection would talk to me or something,” laughed Cho.
Indeed, the author seems to have had quite an unusual childhood. The second child of three, Cho moved around a lot in her youth, following her businessman father and town planner mother.
“I lived in America for a while. My parents applied for this green card lottery in the newspaper and won. So we went over and tried it for a couple of years. It was almost the classic immigrant story,” Cho said.
“But you know they say you have more opportunities in America? Well, my father eventually discovered he had more opportunities back home, so we returned home.”
Cho’s family settled down in Penang for a while, before eventually moving back to Selangor. All in all, she would attend seven different schools from the ages of six to 18. She would eventually leave Malaysia again: first to Stropshire in Britain, where she did her A-Levels, and then to Cambridge for her law degree.
Despite all this constant travelling, one fixture in her life was libraries. Cho was a frequent visitor to the Kuala Lumpur Children’s Library, located near Dataran Merdeka: when she ran out of books there, Cho moved on to the British Council library.
A voracious reader, Cho soon grew to love British fantasy authors such as E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and C.S. Lewis. Over time, she discovered the Penguin Popular Classics series, and soon became absorbed in the stories of Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens.
To the young girl, the genteel world of 19th century England was just as wonderful and mind-boggling as anything out of a fantasy novel.
Yet while reading these British classics, Cho became slightly confused with how some of the characters were depicted.
“I’d read Enid Blyton and so on, and she would describe characters as ‘dark’. And that really used to puzzle me, because I thought, they’re ang moh, how dark can they be? And then I realised later she meant dark-haired!” Cho said.
“So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a book, set in sort of an English period, to have this character who was dark-skinned?”
The idea germinated and later grew into Sorceror To The Crown, which features that very concept. The novel tells the story of Zacharias Whyte, the first ever African Sorcerer Royal to the British Crown, and has been described as a cross between the works of Susanna Clarke and Georgette Heyer.
“I don’t read my reviews,” replied Cho, when asked what she thought about critical response to the book. “I know friends who do, and I guess there are upsides and downsides to it. But my goal has always been to block out all that stuff and concentrate on the story. And reading reviews is not conducive to that.”
And indeed, Cho is currently hard at work on the sequels to Sorceror, which has been planned as a trilogy. Adopting a strict writing schedule for it – 1,000 words on days she is working, and 3,000 on days she is not – the author is very optimistic about it.
Asked what advice she would give Malaysian authors who want to make it internationally, Cho recommended they set for themselves their own definitions of success, and work towards achieving them. Additionally, they should be familiar with the venues to submit their work, and the necessary procedures involved with them.
“There’s no real secret. You just have to keep writing, and putting your own work out there. Being Malaysian is not necessarily a handicap. It can be challenging, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it,” Cho said.
“The Western publishing industry has certain ideas that they expect to hear from the rest of the world, so if you have a different kind of story, people may be put off. But don’t give up, and keep pushing through. Your job is to convince them you have a great story that everybody needs to hear!”